"Upside Down 03: Flipping the Script"
by Tim Suttle
2016.12.11 Advent Upside Down 03
Isaiah 35:1-10 – Flipping the Script
I heard a story recently about a group of friends who got together for a BBQ on a warm summer’s evening in Washington DC.
There were eight of them there, mostly couples w/ a few kids.
They were gathered around a backyard dinner table…
It was just one of those great evenings…
Warm but not too hot, great friends, great food.
They were sharing some really good French wine…
Toasting family and friendship… everyone was having a good time.
…and they had been there awhile… it was after 10pm.
One of the men at the party who was just standing there next to his wife, visiting with his friends, and all of the sudden…
Reaching right in between them from behind the couple…
He saw the long barrel of a gun come right in between them
The man said it was almost like slow motion, the hand just came right out in between them.
And everything got suddenly quiet in that backyard.
The hand belonged to a man, medium height, in clean, high-end sweats.
He raised the gun and held it to the head of one of the man’s friends.
Then he held it to the head of his wife.
And he said, “give me your money.”
He kept repeating it very calmly… give me your money.
Then he added: “give me your money or I’m going to start shooting.”
And everybody could see that this guy was serious.
But there was this one problem. These guys were neighbors & friends.
They were just hanging out in somebody’s backyard.
Nobody had any money on them… seriously… not a dollar.
They tried to tell the guy that they didn’t have any money.
The guy started to get irritated with them.
“Give me your money or I’m going to start shooting people.”
“We don’t have any money, seriously, we’re just hanging out.”
The guy got more & more agitated, & everybody could tell that this was not going to end well if something didn’t change…
And kind of out of the blue, one of the women at the table, her name was Christina, she pipes up w/an offer for the man… she says:
Look we’re all friends… we’re just here talking & celebrating.
Why don’t you have a glass of wine with us?
She said it in a way that everyone knew she was serious.
And there was this nervous laughter… including the man w/the gun.
And everyone said it was like a switch had been flipped…
The entire dynamics of the situation had been suddenly changed.
You could feel the difference.
You could see the difference.
The look on the man’s face changed.
So they poured him a glass of wine, handed it to him, & he took a sip & smiled.
He said, “That’s a really good glass of wine.”
They had some cheese there, too.
The man reached down for the cheese & put the gun in his pocket.
The man drank his wine & ate his cheese, and then he said something completely unexpected… “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.”
Everybody said, “Hey we understand.”
They all just sat there for a moment… in silence.
Stars twinkling overhead, insects chirping in the night air.
Then the guy said something completely out of left field.
He said, “Do you think I could get a hug or something?”
The woman he had pointed the gun at gave him a hug.
Another one of the ladies said, “I’ll hug you.”
Then he said, “Do you think we could do a group hug.”
And so they did… still a little freaked out… would of done anything.
But as they did, the man said softly… “I’m sorry…”
He turned & walked out of the gate w/a glass of wine in his hand..
Later on they were cleaning up they found the glass he had taken with him.
They found it placed neatly on the sidewalk by their alley.
It wasn’t thrown down, or shattered.
It was carefully placed where they’d be sure to find it.
All they could think to do was run into the house & cry in gratitude.
Because they thought they were about to die, but now they’re ok.
I’m listening to this story thinking, that’s really amazing.
And then they go onto explain there’s actually a name for this… it’s something called non-complementary behavior… & it’s really powerful.
You see, most of the time humans mirror each other… behaviorally .
If you’re hostile to me, I’ll be hostile to you.
If you’re kind to me, I’ll be kind to you.
Anytime you break this pattern, it’s called non-complementary behavior.
If someone comes at you with hostility & you come back at them with warmth & friendship, that’s NC behavior.
If someone comes at you w/a gun saying, “Give me your money.”
And you say, “come sit with us, have a glass of wine & some cheese…
…this is a place of friendship & that’s all we have to offer you.”
That’s NC behavior.
And what the story illustrates is that it’s actually quite powerful.
Because it has the ability to completely “Flip the Script.”
…often in ways that offer redemption instead of tragedy or violence.
Our passage today comes from Isaiah Ch. 35, you can turn there if you want.
But first a little background.
In the middle of the book of Isaiah there are these 2 chapters (34-35).
And they are kind of… out of place from the rest of the book.
They are written in verse… so they are 2 twin poems…
Even the language is a little bit strange.
The situation involves a few different political players.
It’s like this 2 chapter interlude in the middle of the book of Isaiah…
It begins w/Isaiah 34, which is this scathing judgment on a people called Edom… & it’s harsh! It starts out:
“Draw near, O nations, to hear; O peoples, give heed! Let the earth hear, and all that fills it; the world, and all that comes from it. For the Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their hordes; he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.”
So this is going to be bad.
Then he mentions this particular kingdom of Edom.
“When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens, lo, it will descend upon Edom, upon the people I have doomed to judgment. The Lord has a sword; it is sated with blood, it is gorged with fat, with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams. For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah, a great slaughter in the land of Edom. Wild oxen shall fall with them, and young steers with the mighty bulls. Their land shall be soaked with blood, and their soil made rich with fat. For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of vindication by Zion’s cause. And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever & ever.
The word of the Lord… thanks be to God.
So who are these people that the Lord is so angry with? Why is Isaiah writing this poem about their utter destruction? Well…
Edom is one of those kingdoms you often hear mentioned in bible.
It’s usually listed among those nations that sometimes went to war against Israel, or at least existed as a threat to Israel.
The Hebrew word Edom actually means "red".
And it has this strange connection to Jacob’s brother Esau.
Esau was also sometimes called Edom.
If you remember Jacob & Esau were twins, & Esau was the first to be born.
Jacob, we’re told, came out grasping onto his brother’s heels.
It was as though he was trying to hold him back so Jacob could be the first born, but it wasn’t to be.
Esau came out first.
And the bible says Esau appeared “…red all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau.”
He had this pink or red complexion & all this red hair.
So it’s likely that his nickname was “red” or in Hebrew: Edom.
Later on in Genesis Esau would trade his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of red soup, or red pottage that Esau loved so much.
Well the Edomites are known in the bible as the descendants of Esau.
And the Israelites are known as the descendants of Jacob.
In the scriptures we’re told that the kingdom of Edom was conquered by King Saul in the 11th century B.C., but they were never fully subdued.
40 years later king David & his general Joab defeated the Edomites in the valley of salt (probably near the Dead Sea).
For awhile Edom became a kind of vassal state under Israel.
They had their own kings & prefects, but they pledged loyalty to Israel.
This lasted through Solomon’s reign & maybe a little longer but not terribly long, because after that they were listed as an enemy again.
That’s the way things went until after the fall of the Northern kingdom.
Then… the big offense… in the time of Nebuchadnezzar the Edomites sided w/Babylon, helped plunder JER & slaughter what was left of Israel
They were scattered among the nations, or carried off to Babylon.
PT: This is why Isaiah denounces Edom so violently. They were really supposed to be part of the extended Hebrew family, but they had turned on Israel & joined in the ultimate humiliation & destruction of the people of God.
So Israel wanted some payback.
They didn’t just want Edom gone… they wanted Edom to suffer.
They wanted utter misery & destruction… they wanted vengeance.
Walter Brueggemann likens chapter 34 & the yearning for vindication to the kind of vengeful venting that happens in a therapy session.
"That yearning and resentment give rise together to extravagant rhetoric that may run beyond reasoned faith, the sort of rhetoric unleashed in therapy, when the floodgates of resentment too long closed are finally opened on the raging silence and everything is grossly overstated."
It’s a totally self-indulgent rant about why Edom stinks & needs to die.
It actually very complementary behavior.
You are mean to us… we’ll be mean to you?
You turn on us… we’ll turn on you only worse… you’re all gonna die!!!
So there’s this ranting & raving in Ch. 34.
It’s bloodlust … its this call for God to turn their streams to pitch & their land to sulfur, & to render Edom totally desolate.
Now this is a gross overreaction by any standards…
Let’s not forget that Israel had done the same thing many times.
Israelite king had existed as vassal kings to NEB for awhile.
This was business as usual in the ancient world.
PT: Israel, and the prophet Isaiah, really… they were venting… it was a like a therapy session where they just rage against everyone, and in which all of their legitimate complaints are grossly overstated.
Then comes Isaiah 35, which is a completely different kind of poem:
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams…in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Israel had been, essentially, annihilated (dispersed/exile) and yet Isaiah 35 is this glowing report of a future that’s going to be so much better than the past.
Isaiah 35 is a powerful poetic word of comfort for these people who had lost their temple, land, & sovereignty… the message is for those:
Who had “weak hands” & “feeble knees” in v.3
They had a “fearful heart” v.4 & “obscured vision” v.5
They had “blind eyes” and “deaf ears” v.5
They had “broken bodies” and “speechless tongues.” v.6
Isaiah is talking to a people who have almost nothing left.
They’ve been utterly overwhelmed by despair and weariness.
They are in an existential crisis…
They are feeling a kind of deep down sorrow that they felt in their very bodies… the sorrow of God… & a people who lost everything.
In the midst of complete despair, Isaiah promises, they will see the Glory of the Lord… and the majesty of God… the Lord will:
…strengthen weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… He will come and save you.” …the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert…
Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place. A word that refused to wait until things improved to begin to live into hope… WB says it this way:
“Israel’s doxologies are characteristically against the data.”
The Lord “Flips the Script” on Israel.
The promises God makes go against the data…
In our world… we see & hear the data every day… news & tv.
Add to that the data of our own lives: waiting for the test results from the doctor, mourning the death of a loved one, wondering if we’ll get thru the next round of lay-offs… or if justice will ever be done.
We know the data all too well and we long for a word out of place.
We long for someone to “Flip the Script” for us.
We long for streams in the desert…
In the Bible, the desert is the place of testing, of thirst, of danger & anxiety.
JS spent 40 days there fasting… Israel spend 40 yrs there wandering.
It’s where wild animals devour the weak.
The desert is not a place of nourishment & hope… death & suffering.
The desert is a desert, in part, because there’s very little water there.
And yet Isaiah’s promise is: “Streams in the desert.”
“…waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.”
And then there’s another image offered:
“A highway shall be there, [in the middle of the desert] and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.”
One of the ancient trade routes called the King's Highway (Num. 20:17) passed through Edom.
When the Israelites requested permission to use the route on their Exodus from Egypt, they were rejected by force.
They needed this highway once before & were refused.
And here in Is 35, they really need it again…
And this is actually what God is promising.
A highway so clearly marked that even a fool can’t get lost.
A highway so safe they don’t even have to worry about lions or beasts.
Only the redeemed shall walk there…
… really strange thing to be promised in the midst of a time of exile.
So you’ve got this overindulgent poem full of bloodlust & revenge in Ch. 34.
Then this—frankly unrealistic—poem of rescue & redemption in Ch. 35.
And the venting & exaggeration serves a serious purpose in Ch. 34.
And the dreaming of a future & a hopeful picture of Israel returning home serves a serious purpose in Ch. 35
And it’s really the same purpose: It provides a kind of buoyancy for Israel in the midst of insurmountable odds.
PT: And both of these prophecies are going to come true… but not in a way that anyone could have ever imagined—because God is going to flip the script.
Here’s how it went down w/Edom from scripture & from historical study
Edom turned on Israel & fought on Nebuchadnezzar’s side…
Then Nebuchadnezzar turned on Edom & took away their sovereignty.
Edom existed only as a puppet kingdom for king Nebuchadnezzar,
Then the Persians, & so on… for hundreds of years…
Then around 163 B.C. during something known as the Maccabean revolution Edom once again joined forces with Israel.
Israel was being ruled over by the Seleucid Empire at this point.
They had been allowed to resettle & rebuild Jerusalem.
But they were heavily taxed, conscripted, & mistreated.
And this guy named Judas Maccabeas led a revolution.
They won a series of battles & got a little bit of their freedom back.
By this time in their history, Edom had grown so weak, that they essentially needed some kind of protection.
And so what happened was: over the course of several generations, Edom basically folded into the life of Israel.
Most of their people converted to Judaism.
Their governors became part of the Jewish society
There was actually a big fight about this among the Israelites because the Pharisees didn’t want the Edomites to be included in Israel.
But they were included, & basically Edom became assimilated into the Jewish nation… they became part of Israel.
And really, from that time on the people of Edom are not mentioned again in the annals of history.
They are treated as part of the Jewish people… Or you could say:
Edom was destroyed but God’s way of destroying them was to redeem them. In the end, they were assimilated back into the Jewish family.
Isaiah had this vision of Edom’s destruction: they wanted Edom’s way of life to be destroyed… but God flips the script.
Edom was destroyed, kind of.
They were enfolded back into the people of God.
They were destroyed by being redeemed as part of the people of God.
The seeds of this vision are actually there in Ch. 34’s ranting & raving.
v.4, the word that’s translated as "terrible recompense" in the NRSV.
It has a pretty wide range of possible meanings including things like benefit, response, payment…
So instead of God’s terrible recompense… Edom might be receiving God’s response… God’s dealing… God flips the script…
And instead of being destroyed by violent wars…
Edom is destroyed by becoming part of the people of God.
Because in the KOG, even vengeance is turned on its head.
And in the end, both of these kingdoms who had ended up on the short end of justice, are redeemed by Israel’s Messiah.
Years later a man named JTB would be stuck in a prison cell in king Herod’s palace… & he knew it was just a matter of time before he’d be killed.
And he sent JS a message asking:
“Are you really the one? Are you the Messiah? Because I’m about to get killed & I don’t want to die for something that’s just a hoax.”
And Jesus sends this message back…
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” – Matthew 11:4-6
Translation: go find John & tell him that I’m flipping the script for all kinds of people who’ve been left out & left behind… you know…
This is really what it means for us to be redeemed. Not that God will destroy our enemies, but that anyone who wants to be part of this family can be.
I know we might be tempted to think it means that God will just destroy our enemies.
The problem is God wants to redeem our enemies, too.
God doesn’t think in us v. them terms… it’s one big “we” to God.
And God wants to redeem all of it.
What it means to be redeemed is that, at some point, God has begun to flip the script in your life.
Anger is replaced by love.
Blaming is replaced by self-examination & a willingness to change.
Desire for revenge is replaced by forgiveness & friendship.
And one way or another, you’ve come back home to the people of God
And God really likes to get involved in things like that.
God supports things like that w/his power & strength & suddenly:
Weakness is replaced by strength… lost are found, poor get good news, blind receive sight, deaf can hear, dead are raised to new life.
PT: You guys: this is the good news! God is flipping the script on this world. It began with Jesus, and it has been picking up steam for 2k years.
And I know that it sometimes looks as tho the bad guys are winning.
It can seem like the world is more confusing & dark than ever.
And our lives are full of suffering & strife … full of drama & disconnexn.
And we can be tempted to wallow in our own resentment.
And we are programmed to act in complementary ways.
To grossly exaggerate the ways in which people around us have offended us… and play the victim.
But God is flipping the script on all of that stuff.
St. Francis said it this way:
“No one is to be called an enemy, all are your benefactors, and no one does you harm. You have no enemy except yourselves.”
What going on in your life that you’re struggling with, what’s the pain you fight against, the grudge you hold, the blame you fee?
I think this text speaks particularly to the grudge & the desire for revenge… you know… it’s right in the middle of Is. 34-35.
It’s interesting that we read it this time of year, during holidays.
You’re going to run into someone for whom you hold a grudge.
Who is it for you? Who do you hold a grudge against?
A grudge is that thing where we feel offended… we blame others.
Blame is always an attempt to discharge our own pain.
How will you let God flip the script on that?
If all our grudges came true, what would be left? Who would be left if we all got what we really deserved?
If we do an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, who’s going to chew my food? … and lead me around when my eyes are put out?
Why can’t we we flip the script on all our grudges?
I think part of why it’s so hard is that we’re shaped by the liturgies of culture & human instinct to embrace complementary behavior.
If someone comes at you w/hostility, you’re hostile right back.
Someone blames you, you blame them right back.
The way God has been leading us toward since the days of Jacob & Esau…
Is a way of answering hate with love.
Meeting hostility with hospitality.
…answering violence with peace…
Answering the grudge with forgiveness… just let it go…
Francis says you don’t really have any enemies.
“You have no enemy except yourselves”
In the end, though, I wonder if the thing that keeps us from really letting go of the grudge is that we can’t imagine life w/out it.
It’s a crutch… it keeps us propped up… looping on that thought:
I’m right… you’re wrong… you come clean, not me…
It’s a basic lack of imagination that keeps the grudge alive.
That’s why you can’t have Isaiah 34 w/out Isaiah 35.
Name the offense, name the offending party, gripe about it, ok.
That’s Isaiah 34… you gotta do that… you gotta get it out.
But that’s not the end of the story… then you need Isaiah 35.
Where God says… I’m going to flip the script.
A grudge is basic un-forgiveness… & un-forgiveness is like drinking poison & expecting the other person to die.
Cuz, you know: the announcement of the KOG is the announcement that God has already forgiven that person you hold a grudge against.
When you hold onto the grudge you put yourself at odds w/God.
So what’s the source of the tension?
What’s the source of the ongoing problem?
Is it their offense… or your unforgiveness?
PT: What would it look like for you to flip the script, stop being your enemy, stop seeing the world around you as an enemy… learn to make your enemy a friend? Stop trying to settle the score. Maybe you need the fantastical, unrealistic, illogical, and surprising vision of Isaiah 35…
1. Why is a grudge/revenge such an overpowering emotion? Why would God give us this emotion?
2. Which of the two Isaiah chapters (chpt. 34 or 35) do you find yourself in today?
3. Tim reminded us that God does not have an "us/them" posture but is always about "we". Who is your "them", and how can you begin to shift thinking and action to move toward "we"?
4. Much of Jesus’ teaching recorded for us was non-complementary; for example, the Sermon on the Mount, encounters with Nicodemus (John 3), the Samaritan woman (John 4), many of his parables, throughout life to his reaction to Judas (Matthew 26), Pilate and his accusers (Matthew 27), and Thomas after his resurrection (John 20). The reaction shown in our non-complementary text, Isaiah 35, was renewal and rejoicing. How much of our behavior leads to renewal and rejoicing in ourselves and others?